featured gallery for September 2003

Robert Blanchon

The Robert Blanchon Project is the collaboration between Visual AIDS and the estate of Robert Blanchon to organize Blanchon's artistic oeuvre, correspondence and writing in preparation for an exhibition and the publication of a monograph. The Project is generously funded by a grant from the Judith Rothschild Foundation. Born in Massachusetts in 1965, Blanchon earned his M.F.A. in Photography in 1990 from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He worked as a conceptual artist in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York and was an influential teacher at University of California at Irvine, CalArts, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Blanchon died of complications relating to AIDS in 1999. Blanchon's caustic critique of American socio-political culture in the 1990s, represented not only in his art but in his political activism, was poised against his quiet ruminations on the death and afterlife of his work -- an afterlife, as Blanchon understood it, at the mercy of the very culture he critiqued. Blanchon's sagacious understanding of the forces of cultural memory is both prescient to my task -- attending to the traces of his life -- and one of his most compelling themes.

Blanchon was acutely aware of the ways in which meaning is posthumously projected on an artist according to the caprices of art historical discourse. This was a point he especially stressed in his pedagogy. For a class he taught in 1996, Blanchon scheduled two full days to discuss Felix Gonzalez-Torres, with a focus on Torres' posthumous vulnerability to the deterministic interpretations of art critics and writers. As an alternative tribute to Torres, Blanchon scheduled 38 seconds of silence on the syllabus. Question #8 on the final review for this class, written in Blanchon's characteristic catty style, asks students: "Consider the congested matrix we know as history's machinery and draw parallels and opposites as to how one is remembered, by whom, for whose benefit ... Do you always agree with posthumous posturing? (i.e., Roberta Smith's obituary that belittles Felix via melodramatic language and loosely conceived interpretations of his work as 'a sculpture of love and loss' -- change 'sculptor' to 'singer' and it might be an homage to Loretta Lynn's first holiday album where she asks daddy not to drink this Christmas eve)." And finally, in a second 1996 syllabus, Blanchon scheduled May 30 with the discussion topic, "It's May 30, 1996. We're breathing history" and the assignment to read "Dear Dead Person," Benjamin Weissman's fictional three-page letter from a boy to the victim of a car accident, thanking him for the accident -- it was the highlight, the boy writes, of his vacation.

For a writer or curator approaching Blanchon's work after his death, these words should cut to the quick. The notion of Blanchon's work, and even of his body, as a kind of vessel set adrift, without a destination and at the mercy of its anonymous recipient, is omnipresent in his oeuvre. Blanchon persistently explored the process by which meaning is determined not by the addresser but the addressee. The ornate scroll of Blanchon's tattoo on the nape of his neck, "Tattoo (Lovers)," is pointedly blank. The tattoo is one of several; another blank scroll dramatically unfurls on Blanchon's upper arm, and on the other arm, a twisting white ribbon overlays two red hearts but doesn't announce the lovers' names. The tattoos are a prescient starting point for exploring Blanchon's persistent interest in the (un)address -- the blank or anonymous announcement that heralds nothing except itself. Using the paper paraphernalia of social rites -- scrolls and banners, greeting cards, invitations, funeral and wedding announcements, gift boxes, Blanchon's emphasis on the materiality of these objects foregrounds their essential anonymity. "Untitled (envelopes)," for example, features a stack of cards and envelopes, still bound with the flimsy paper strips with which they were purchased. The small bundle of cards, repeating infinitum on a continuous roll of vellum, eerily evokes the lifelessness of a card without a sender or an addressee. This melancholic sense of futility recurs in "Untitled, 1994," a simple white placard with no inscription, spot lit and set on a surface of white grosgrain silk.

Blanchon explores several other forms of address, conceptually akin to the letter, that also suppose an unknown or ambivalent addressee. "Untitled (self-portrait)" consists of 14 portraits of Blanchon commissioned from sidewalk artists. The portraits picture men who are astonishingly different from each other, and Blanchon seems to suggest that the body itself functions as a kind of empty message, to be inscribed and addressed by its perceiver. His artist statement for the piece links the genre of self-portraiture with that of classified personals -- a connection that is further explored in "Untitled, 1987" and "Untitled, 1987" which pair classified personal ads with photographic portraits. The viewer instinctively tries to link the face with the ad but Blanchon clips the ads in a way that refuses a simple match. The piece evades the viewer's desire to make a connection, suggesting not only that meaning-making is still the prerogative of the viewer, as in the series of self-portraits, but also that the subjects of the photograph can't be rescued from their essential anonymity. Blanchon's faltering assertion of the particular within the universal characterizes much of his later work. "Wave (0-9)" represents Blanchon's failed attempt, standing one afternoon knee-deep in the Pacific ocean, to photograph two identical waves; Blanchon's search at dawn for a single cypress tree in Los Angeles (a funerary plant, seen beside the hanged man and his executioner in Baudelaire's "Voyage to Cythera") becomes "Tree (0-9)." Blanchon's efforts to individuate are undermined by his presentation; the pieces are each exhibited as serial images in 9 identical silver-plated frames. Are they each special or are none of them? Blanchon asks, as the image, the letter, the self, accede meaning to their recipient. Announced before a sometimes inattentive, solipsistic audience, Blanchon's art is profoundly vulnerable.